Failure to Diagnose Medical Emergencies

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Some medical conditions are considered medical emergencies because, without immediate medical treatment, the patient could die or suffer serious permanent injuries. Common examples of medical emergencies include heart attack, stroke, trauma resulting in significant bleeding or injury to an organ or limb, bowel obstruction, cauda equina syndrome, and pulmonary embolism. These conditions frequently appear in the emergency department, where staff should be trained to quickly diagnose and treat these and other medical emergencies. When patients present to a hospital with a medical emergency, they can only receive the appropriate treatment in a timely manner if the medical staff makes a timely and correct diagnosis. Unfortunately, sometimes medical providers fail to correctly or timely diagnose a medical emergency. When this happens, the medical providers may commit medical malpractice, in which case they can be held responsible for any injuries the patient suffers. In this article we discuss medical malpractice issues related to medical emergencies.

How are medical emergencies properly diagnosed?

If a patient presents to a hospital with a medical emergency, the emergency department staff is required to quickly assess the patient and treat the emergency with the goal of stabilizing the patient. The staff’s assessment includes obtaining a reliable history of the condition from the patient, family member, or other source (if possible) performing a physical examination, and ordering appropriate diagnostic tests such as imaging studies and blood work in a timely manner. The medical staff is required to use all of this available information to formulate a diagnosis or, in the event a diagnosis is unclear, a list of likely diagnoses – called a differential diagnosis – to rule out life-threatening conditions. 

When there are several potential diagnoses on the medical provider’s differential diagnosis, the medical provider should first attempt to rule out the most serious emergencies. For example, if a medical provider sees a patient in the emergency department who complains of chest pain, that provider should quickly rule out a heart attack or pulmonary embolism, because if those conditions are left untreated, even for short periods of time, the patient could die. If a patient with chest pain is found not to have a medical emergency, the provider can later determine if the chest pain is from something less serious and urgent, like a muscle strain. If the emergency department staff fail to consider and treat the emergent condition appropriately, and if the patient suffers injury, the patient may have a claim for medical malpractice.

What types of failure to diagnose claims exist for medical emergencies?

There are many examples of medical providers failing to appropriately and timely diagnose medical emergencies. Here we discuss a few.

A common failure to diagnose claim occurs when a patient presents with a medical emergency, but the medical provider wrongly assumes that the patient’s symptoms are related to a common, less serious medical problem, as opposed to a rare, more serious condition. One example of this is where a medical provider quickly assumes the patient’s flu-like symptoms are from the flu or COVID-19, when in fact the patient has a more serious infection that, left untreated, can cause catastrophic injury or even death. 

Another example of a failure to diagnose claim is where the patient has a medical emergency, but the medical staff simply fails to evaluate the patient or order diagnostic studies within a reasonable period of time. For example, if a patient presents to the hospital with signs and symptoms of a stroke, but the emergency department is understaffed, or abnormally busy, the patient may not be evaluated and treated in a timely manner. Because timing is important in these types of cases, the emergency department staff’s failure to expedite testing and treatment of the patient can lead to a serious, permanent injury. 

A failure to diagnose claim may also exist if medical providers discharge a patient from the emergency department before determining the cause of the patient’s complaints. The emergency department staff may wrongly view the patient’s condition as stable, thinking that the issue can be addressed by the patient’s primary care physician or other outpatient medical providers. A premature discharge, however, can be catastrophic if the medical providers fail to address the possibility, or even likelihood, that the patient is suffering from a medical emergency because, outside of the hospital setting, a patient is far less likely to have a good outcome when suffering a serious complication from their medical emergency.

Finally, a common example of medical malpractice involving medical emergencies is where the medical staff incorrectly interprets or fails to review the results of laboratory results or diagnostic studies that would help provide an accurate and timely diagnosis. This can happen because of understaffing, system errors, or simple miscommunication between hospital staff. When this happens, the patient’s condition gets worse as time passes, potentially causing the patient to suffer irreversible injuries.

How do I prove a medical provider failed to diagnose my medical emergency?

Medical malpractice claims involve complex issues of medicine and law. To prove that a medical provider failed to appropriately and timely diagnose your medical emergency, you should hire attorneys who understand these complex issues of medicine and law. Our attorneys have experience handling failure to diagnose claims involving many different areas, including medical emergencies, and have the skill and resources to prove a valid claim. 

Like any medical malpractice claim, proving a failure to diagnose a medical emergency requires you to prove that the medical provider failed to act reasonably under the circumstances (also called a breach of the standard of care), and that this failure caused an injury. Each of these elements of the claim must be supported by medical expert testimony, and our attorneys are experienced and skilled in selecting the right experts for your case. 

If you or a loved one has been the victim of a failure to diagnose a medical emergency, then the law provides that you or your loved one are entitled to compensation for pain and suffering, lost earnings (both past and future), medical expenses (both past and future), and other out-of-pocket expenses. Our attorneys know how to evaluate and maximize the compensation to which you are entitled under the law.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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